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Efficacy of Various Spatial Visualization Implementation Approaches in a First-year Engineering Projects Course

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

First-year Programs Division Technical Session 6: Hands-on Projects and Spatial Skills

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.590.1 - 26.590.8



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Paper Authors


Jacob L. Segil University of Colorado Boulder

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Jacob L. Segil is an Instructor for General Engineering Plus and Mechanical Engineering degree programs at the University of Colorado Boulder. Jacob has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Bioengineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a M.S. in Mechanical Engineering with a Bioengineering focus from the University of Colorado Boulder, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder. Jacob researches brain-machine interfaces, neural prosthetic devices, and engineering education.

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Beth A Myers University of Colorado Boulder

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Beth A. Myers is the engineering assessment specialist for the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. She holds a BA in biochemistry, ME in engineering management and is currently a PhD candidate studying engineering education at the College of Engineering and Applied Science. She has worked for the University of Colorado in various capacities for 16 years, including as a program manager for a small medical research center and most recently as Director of Access and Recruiting for the College of Engineering and Applied Science. Her interests are in quantitative and qualitative research and data analysis.

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Jacquelyn F. Sullivan Ph.D. University of Colorado, Boulder

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Jacquelyn Sullivan is founding co-director of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program and the General Engineering Plus degree program at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. She has been intimately involved in the retention-promoting First Year Engineering Projects course since its inception, and has recently become a driver for spatial visualization skill building through the course. She is currently launching CU Teach Engineering, a unique initiative to produce secondary science or math teachers through a new design-based engineering degree, with the ultimate goal of broadening participation among those who attend engineering college. Sullivan was conferred as an ASEE Fellow in 2011 and was awarded NAE’s 2008 Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.

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Derek T Reamon University of Colorado, Boulder

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Derek Reamon is the Co-director of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program (ITLP) and the General Engineering Plus (GE+) degree program, and a Senior Instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. As ITLP co-director, he coordinates 19-22 sections of First-year Engineering Projects, a course that has a proven benefit on retention within engineering and is also a nationally recognized model for freshman design courses. The GE+ program has created a flexible engineering degree and a pathway to secondary math and science teaching licensure, to increase the numbers of STEM teachers that have strong engineering design backgrounds. Derek is also an award-winning teacher and was most recently awarded the John and Mercedes Peebles Innovation in Education from CU’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. Dr. Reamon received his PhD in engineering education from Stanford University in 1999. His dissertation was one the first in the nascent field of engineering education research.

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Efficacy of Various Spatial Visualization Implementation Approaches in a First-Year Engineering Projects CourseSpatial visualization skills are both learnable1 and highly correlated with success in engineering.Convinced that improvement in its students’ spatial visualization (SV) skills would supportimproved retention in the engineering program at a highly research-active university, the first-year engineering projects course faculty team embarked on an evolving and escalating effort tocultivate its students’ SV abilities. Starting in the 2013 academic year, the spatial visualizationskills of a cohort of ~200 entry-level engineering students were measured before and after theircompletion of a first-year engineering projects course. Students were tested using the PurdueSpatial Visualization Test: Visualization of Rotations2 (PVST:R) pre- and post-tests. Insubsequent semesters of the same course, the next student cohorts were also tested during thefirst and last weeks of the 16-week semester to see the impact of the addition of various formalcurricular approaches to cultivate spatial visualization skills. The efforts to improve SV abilitiesincluded 1) in-course SV curriculum and homework assignments, 2) voluntary out-of-class SVworkshops with homework assignments, with the potential to earn extra credit, and 3) amandatory out-of-class four-part SV workshop series for a targeted subset of students. This paperdescribes the various spatial visualization approaches and implementations across thosesemesters, and reports the resulting efficacy (or lack thereof) of each method.To accompany the first-year engineering design experience of entry-level engineering students,varying amounts of formal spatial visualization curricula were implemented and tested overseveral semesters. To begin, in spring 2013, no special training in spatial visualization wasprovided and 202 students took the PVST:R pre- and post-tests to determine whether the courseitself, or other factors in the first-year engineering curriculum, impacted students’ SVperformances. Even though this cohort of entry-level students was immersed in an academicengineering culture and the course included a significant amount of drawing and visualization ofthree-dimensional designs, a significant decrease in students’ SV scores was found across thesemester.During the subsequent fall 2013 semester, the next cohort (259 students) was introduced tospatial visualization concepts in the form of an introductory lecture added to the first-yearprojects course. In conjunction with the lecture, all students completed five online SV homeworkassignments, and were permitted to complete more for extra credit. The post-test was then takenby the fall 2013 cohort. Next, the entire spring 2014 cohort (305 students) took the PVST:R pre-test. This time, only the 49 students with scores below 20 (out of 30)—the “pass” threshold—were asked to participate in voluntary, out-of-class spatial visualization workshops led by agraduate teaching assistant. Of the 49 targeted students, 32 completed one or more of thehomework assignments, and 26 took the workshop post-test. All students in the spring 2014 thentook the post test at the end of the semester.Both the fall 2013 and spring 2014 pre- and post-test PVST:R scores showed improvement andwere statistically significant, but the gains and participation rates fell short of the faculty team’sprogram goals. Still believing that improved spatial visualization skills would lead to improvedretention in the engineering program, a more intensive implementation of the spatialvisualization curriculum was designed with the intent to aggressively develop SV skills amongthe ~500 students enrolled in the first-year projects course annually.During the next semester, fall 2014, participation in four, two-hour, out-of-class SV workshopswas required for the 16% of the cohort of 334 students who scored less than 66% (a score of 20)on the PVST:R pre-test. A significant gender difference was observed among the cohort subsetwith pre-test scores of less than 20—the subset was composed of 8% of the male students and42% of the female students in the cohort. Early performance results from this revised workshopseries are encouraging, and a second four-week session is scheduled for mid-semester to provideadditional detailed SV instruction for these students. Given the preliminary strength of the fall2014 outcomes, a similar strategy for delivering the SV curriculum is planned for the spring2015 cohort of the design-focused first-year course.With the objective to assess students’ change in spatial visualization skills via a hands-on designcourse amended with various forms of formal delivery of SV curricula, the full paper will reviewand compare the various approaches, assessing their success in improving students’ spatialvisualization skills. A correlation analysis between spatial visualization scores and semestergrades in core engineering courses such as calculus and chemistry will also be presented.References1. Sorby, S. A. and A. F Wysocki. “Introduction to 3-D Spatial Visualization: An Active Approach.” New York, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2003.2. Guay, R. B. “Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations.” West Lafayette, IN: Purdue Research Foundation, 1977.

Segil, J. L., & Myers, B. A., & Sullivan, J. F., & Reamon, D. T. (2015, June), Efficacy of Various Spatial Visualization Implementation Approaches in a First-year Engineering Projects Course Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23928

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